HORLA FICTION (May 2019)

 

THE GIRLS WHO DIE AT NIGHT

by JANNA GRACE

 

WHEN the girl started stepping on my chest each night, I found it odd, but not unusual. I thought it was a dream, or sleep paralysis again, but she kept coming back. Recurring sleep paralysis and nightmares were not uncommon either, so I still didn’t take it seriously. Then, she started leaving marks.

The first time she left one she sat down, glared at me with her lower lip shoved out and then put a cigarette out on my neck. It appeared between two fingers and then she gently squished it in between the V that meets at the top of my chest. I woke up that time… no gasping or getting trapped in the in between world, and there was a small scabbed circle where she had burned me. It did strike me as odd that it had scabbed already, she had just done it, and there was no smell of singed flesh, and then I realized what I was seriously considering in that moment. It was probably there the day before; I must have noticed it in a mirror without realizing and subconsciously incorporated it into my now bi-weekly little girl night terrors. Case closed. Until she put one out on my face. That mark was definitely not there the night before, and it was, again, already scabbed when I shot up, gasping from sleep in the early morning. I think she smiled that time, like she thought it was funny that I thought I could rationalize her away.

One time I got the courage to ask her name and why she was doing this before she burned me, but she acted as if I hadn’t said a word. She had bangs and wiry chin-length hair, a bit greasy, and from what I could tell in the dim light (she always came just at dawn), it was a mousy-brown.

She had bangs and, of course, large dark eyes. Can’t have a child haunt you with little beady ones, right? All she had to do was start humming or singing a wan and tinny wail and she would be perfect for every stupid horror movie I used to love so much. After that burn on my chin though, her little warning that she was really there, she stuck to the places most people couldn’t see on my body: my lower chest, my stomach, my upper thighs and arms, and, when I slept on my stomach, all along my back and buttocks. I think she liked that best because I couldn’t see her sitting there, but I could feel her weight. And not knowing where the burn was going to land was so much worse than watching it happen.

I broke up with my boyfriend pretty quickly after she started leaving the marks. He was asking questions and I didn’t have answers. He probably thought I was crazy, but he was there with me many nights and he said himself I wasn’t moving around in my sleep or anything. I only had three or four marks at that point and I said it must be bug bites or something that I was scratching in my sleep. But he had looked at me with his head tilted, so he had to go.

Next, she started bouncing on me. Just lightly, but the movement made me nauseous. Like I was on that waterbed at my friends’ sleepover in sixth grade. I don’t like to think about that night, so I think the little girl liked to remind me. The rocking was slow and rhythmic, and it caused me to wake up ready to puke more than once.

On those nights she didn’t burn me, but she still smiled as I got closer and closer to vomiting. I don’t know what she was enjoying; maybe it reminded her of one of those old plastic horses floating on rusted metal outside of grocery stores. You put in a quarter and then you start to move, in slow circles and people can watch you from the sidewalk.

I stopped smoking weed pretty soon after the bouncing nights began. Because the few times I did smoke, all of a sudden that rocking feeling from the night would come. It started in my toes almost, like they were going numb, and then I knew the nausea was on its way. It struck me as a larger problem at this point because now she was starting to come into my waking life. I could deal with her when I could pack her away in a bizarre night terror box, but that feeling made the growing number of small bubble-shaped scars seem like a bigger issue than I was ready to admit.

I stopped seeing my parents at that point— when I couldn’t smoke weed without getting nauseous that is. I just told them I was busy with work and put my phone on silent a lot of the time.

The girl seemed pleased with that change and stopped hurting me for a little while. Things almost seemed to go back to normal because now she was only bouncing on me or sitting quietly, and I wasn’t getting sick during the day. But then I found this weird YouTube video about a girl who dissociates, turns into other people when something upset her, including a five-year-old girl, and her voice was like mine. My night-time girl, that is. And it seemed to make her mad that someone else was like her. I don’t think I ever heard her speak, but I knew. That day she must have made me tired to get to me quicker because I was so exhausted that I fell asleep at 7pm. And she didn’t wait until dawn this time. This time the little girl ripped out a clump of her hair and brushed it along my cheeks and over my lips. It tickled and I think I must have scrunched up my face because she suddenly grabbed my mouth with her other hand and shoved her fingers inside to pry it open. Then, without a smile this time, she shoved the fistful of hair towards the back of my throat. Her hands were so little that they actually went in more than I would have thought possible.

I woke up coughing that time, gasping for air as usual, my mouth full of mousy brown hair. My hair hasn’t been that color since I was a teenager. That was when I really started to get scared and quit my job.

I couldn’t smoke, but I could drink, so I did, just a little bit more. It wasn’t like it was a problem; it was just a tiny escape once in a while. I was running out of money, so it was only a bottle of wine every few nights. She was nicer to me on those nights; she just sat there and smiled faintly, like she was a little drunk too, and I wondered if she knew anything about me or if she knows how I feel. I wasn’t sure if she was a ghost or if I was psychotic or if it was some awful prank played by some unknown enemy, but the hair was definitely not mine.

For proof, I saved it in an envelope in the drawer next to my bed. Some nights before sleep I would take it out and rub my thumb along the broken bits at the edges. There were flakes of skin that had been pulled out from the roots there, and they were soft. I started to feel bad for the girl one night and I tried to ask her why she was so angry or whatever it was that caused her to do these things to me and she, again, just smiled. I still hadn’t heard the voice I knew was there.

I started to think about calling a priest the morning she dug a cross into my chest, right below the clavicle, with her nails. She licked me there first after a little bouncing, and then she crooked her index finger into a hook and pulled my skin down in a line. It came up like her nail was a potato peeler. Before I could wake up, she pulled that same finger horizontally across the centre of the first line, to make a plus sign, a “t,” a crude cross. But I really didn’t want to go to the church. I had been away for so long and I had hoped to keep it that way. There was that vacation Bible camp counsellor who breathed so closely on my neck for weeks and liked to hold my hand and then he followed me into the bathroom that time. I know it wasn’t the church’s fault, of course it wasn’t, so I didn’t tell anyone. I don’t think he ever did it again, to anyone else, that is, so I felt it wasn’t as much my fault either. But, this did seem to be getting a bit Satanic. I mean, if I believed in those things, this was checking a lot of “possession” boxes.

The next time she came, I tried to call out for Jesus. My family had always called Him for everything, and I figured why the Hell not? The little girl didn’t recoil in horror like some demon singed with his Holy Name, no, she just smiled that little smile and then shrugged before beginning to bounce. I did throw up that morning. Woke up sitting in bed with the vomit all down my front, pooling in the sheet that made a receptacle from being draped across my crossed legs. The numbness was in my toes and the queasiness did not leave me for several hours. Later that day I read a book a friend had sent me; she had written that she was worried and loved me on the inside cover…or at least I tried to read it. But within the first ten pages the little boy character started talking about feeling “the worms” all over and I threw up again. I know what that feeling is – I feel worms crawling in me and on me when my feet start going numb. Sometimes my hearing starts to go at the same time, though it doesn’t really go; it’s more like that one time when I fainted at my cousin’s house and right before I blacked out everything got really loud and cloudy and far away all at once.

I woke up with my cousin’s breath on me that time. It stank of Coca-Cola and fruit snacks and I didn’t want it on me. But those worms were just what the little girl did to me and sure enough later that night, inspired by the idea I guess, she came to me and dumped an entire six pack of worms on my stomach. She was really awful about it too— first she bounced a little bit and then she used a small penknife to pierce the tops of each soda can, and, one-by-one, she cut along the circumferences. One time, with a sharp inhalation, a few drops of blood fell on me as she snapped her thumb to her lips. She wiped her hand on her nightgown, because that was what she always wore, and got back to carving.

Once all the cans had their tops sawed off, she firmed her grip on me with her thighs so I couldn’t wriggle at all, and dumped the cans on me, one by one. All of the worms fell on my stomach, and they felt so heavy there, squirming and pressing against my belly. I honestly thought one of the larger worms would burrow in through my belly button; they were all pushing down so hard on top of him, giving him strength, and then a few started to make their way towards my chest. The girl watched, without expression. She often had a blank or sort-of faraway look, and then suddenly she picked one up by its back end. I knew it was so because she swung it close to my eyes and I could see the worm’s little band of smoothness that marked the base of the head.

She suddenly started petting it with her other hand and the worm, right above my eyes, perked up at the touch. It raised its tiny body, blind and curious, smelling the air. Then, she encircled it with that little hand, and it started to grow a bit in girth. I watched, horrified, as she started to move it lower towards my face. She let the tip of its head brush my nose and then drifted it towards my mouth. I clasped it tight but could still taste the dirt coming through as she slid it up and down along my lips. Thankfully she let me wake up then. There were a few blood splatters on my chest, but the worm didn’t get in my mouth. It didn’t.

Tonight is the last night. I decided. I don’t know what I am going to do, but I can’t have her come anymore. I have run out of money. I haven’t paid rent in I don’t know how long, and I had to sign something from this man who banged on my door with a large tan envelope. It had a date in bold and seemed to be listing some options. I got too sick to keep reading and threw up on him.

He yelled at me and left, swatting at his wet pants. I left the paper on the floor in the hallway. I don’t feel much anymore and it’s hard to tell which cigarette burns are old or new or if they’re old ones that have been reopened. She likes to burn the scars that begin to heal and I think I made it worse when I started picking at the scabs a few weeks ago.

I had to tell my parents I had moved, and they believed me. On one of those days when I felt more like myself, I googled a fake address far enough away and asked them to come visit. They mostly left me alone after that. My voice sounded like mine that day.

My breathing is shallower now. It is hard to take full breaths; my body and chest feel so light all the time. My arms are like those blow-up men on car lots. Maybe if I’m careful, they might lift me away. But, it’s not just the weight itself; it’s this connection to my body. I’m not sure there is much of one left anymore and if a strong wind came my arms would be ripped, no pulled, from the sockets. The numbness spreads so much further now and I can only get back in my body by pulling at a fraying rope. I’m triggered by almost anything now. I don’t even watch kid’s shows anymore. A rabbit digging quickly in the ground can make it all start again. If it has to happen, I just wish it would spread everywhere. Since that book with the little boy, worms have become the girl’s favourite form of whatever it is that she is doing to me. She loves to bring them in cans and though she still burns me with a cigarette once in a while, she prefers to burn me by squishing the worms from their back to their mouth to make them throw up on my chest and stomach. They have acid inside of them. Or maybe it’s salt? Like the crunchy kind you put out before a bad snow, so the flakes have nowhere to stick. She sometimes even squirts them on my face. The worms die afterwards though, like honeybees, which makes me happy.

But there are always so many more, waiting in the cans. The girl is starting to grow up I think, but I’m not sure. She looks different. Or maybe I see different. My eyes look watery in the mornings. But, her bones stand out more, like mine. I guess she isn’t eating either. And her nightgown is getting ragged. I wish she would just change her clothes before she steps or sits on me again. But, I know we won’t.

I decided, like I said. Tonight. One of us is going to go away and I honestly don’t care if it is me. She’ll have to find someone else to haunt. Why can’t she go to a man who can do more to fight back? I’m not strong anymore, but even when I was, I couldn’t fight her small body off. Her cheekbones are like metal and I shake all the time now. I think the worms sleep in me during the day, in my stomach, and they wait for the night so they can move downwards. They like to burn me down there now, but I don’t want to talk about that. Mommy says little ladies don’t even think about that, so I won’t. But they really do burn me, and the little girl doesn’t even care. She is so used to it now she looks bored.

I wonder why I can’t be? It’s been months at least and I still shake and everything gets really loud and quiet in my ears at the same time and my organs shift around to make room for the worms and there’s a dull pressure between my legs. I feel like I can’t go to the bathroom anymore because I don’t want to look down there. The burns are real, and they cover my skin. They have burned off most of my hair and have even started to move inside. I screamed when she did that. Who would ever put a lit cigarette up there? You’d think the wetness would put it out before it could get too deep, but she does it fast. It doesn’t really matter because it hurts too much. I tried putting damp toilet paper on it, then ice, then aloe, to sooth it, but when it felt a little better, I remembered I don’t deserve soothing. The little girl does this to me for a reason. And I have taken it, and I should probably take more, but I just don’t think I can.

How will she come to me at night if I don’t have anywhere to sleep? The dates on that paper are getting close and I am not ready for her to leave me now. I know it is sick, but I need her now. I think she actually cares about me; I see something in her eyes when she drops or squeezes the worms to burn me. We are almost like sisters, or lovers. Sisters hurt each other, but they are always there for each other. And if I could just look at it differently, a voice tells me it won’t hurt. That normal people like this. That I am the one who is wrong, who is disgusting.

If I was good, it wouldn’t hurt; it would feel amazing. The little girl has practised to get to where she is and maybe if I would just participate, I could get there too. Maybe I can go haunt someone? Maybe if I gave it all to someone else, she would stop coming to me? But, I stopped thinking like that last week. Stopped. I would never do this to anyone else. There is still the part of me that knows she does this because of something else. Or somebody else. She walks into my room each night, barefoot, and pulls back my covers, slowly. It’s a ritual now and if I just let her do it, it is over quicker and then I can sometimes sleep during the day. And she’s right, there’s almost something wonderful once in a while about the worms. They grow from the numb areas into a tingling at the core of my body and if I just let them, they move past making me want to pee into something else. But, I don’t want this anymore and I have nowhere to go so I will stop her tonight. I don’t care what will happen as long as I don’t ever have to wake up from a visit from the little girl again.

I was so foolish. I thought I could fight her. I tried and she smiled even wider than the time she first put the worms inside me. She had lost a tooth and the gap was black and bored to the back of her head. I put a shovel next to me in bed and a pile of pills and water and a knife. I even clutched a lighter in my hand. I didn’t know then what it takes to kill little girls who come in your sleep. But I also didn’t realize how much she had grown through the months. When I fell asleep this last night, I realized that because she is getting bigger and I am no longer eating, she weighs almost the same as me. And, she’s just as tall. Her nightgown doesn’t go past the top of her thighs anymore so when she sits on me her disgusting crusty panties rub against my skin.

But of course none of my weapons can hurt her, really, because she is already dead. You can’t hurt a memory; you can only erase it. Or maybe, eviscerate it? When I woke up this time, it was to the sound of her giggle. Like a god-damned horror movie. An exorcism. But this is no devil, I realized when I couldn’t kill her. She is no demon.

She has short mousy-brown hair and large dark eyes. Like me when I was her ages. She is just doing what she was taught and told to do, and she is doing it well. She is keeping it all inside of her and just giving it to me, bit-by-bit, in the night. I sat up this morning, pushed the shovel and pills and knife onto the floor. But I placed the lighter carefully on the dresser. How foolish. Those things alone cannot make it go away. Neither can sharp edges of Coke cans or venomous snakes. There is only one way and the little girl told me how from the very first night. The cigarette was and always has been the answer. It started in the burning and now, it will end in flames. Dramatic yes, but suitable. Women always burned— when people were afraid of them or when they wouldn’t do what was wanted, or sometimes just because they were supposed to accompany a man in his end. I climbed through my neighbours’ backyards in my nightgown all afternoon and finally found enough lighter fluid next to old barbecues. A lot of their caps are rusted, but the fluid still sloshes inside.

I thought I could fight her when I should have been trying to help her. I looked in the mirror after the thin, clear fluid had been sprayed across the carpets and up and down the drapes and realized I hadn’t dyed my hair in years. The clumps in my mouth had been mine. I put them there, just like I put them in my drawer.

I thought of the camp counsellor and my cousin and the sixth grade sleep-over. I thought of the man on the bus. I thought of that friend of the family at Easter and the drunk boyfriend and the man in the walk-in freezer at my first job. I thought of the late-night walks home in the snow and the glaring, lone lightbulbs hanging above cellar college parties. I thought of my bed and my sheets and my comforter and about it being lifted, night after night. And I realized how fucking beautiful I must be. How beautiful I really am.

We picked up the lighter together that morning. I thought I had to fight her, when all I needed to do was free her.

 

 

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Janna Grace lives in a half-glass barn and her work has appeared in The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Plastik Magazine, and Red Eft Review, among others. She has pieces forthcoming in Eunoia and Alpha Female Society. She teaches writing at Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA. She is the editor of Lamplit Underground and her debut novel will be published through Quill Press. 

Her website: JannaLiggan.com